- Director: Jerzy Skolimowski
- Writers: Jerzy Skolimowski, Ewa Piaskowska
- Starring: Sandra Drzymalska, Lorenzo Zurzolo, Mateusz Kościukiewicz, Isabelle Huppert
Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar remains one of the French New Wave’s signature films, a unique achievement of storytelling and one of his best works. The film was a sort of character study, but from the perspective of a lowly donkey as it experiences its caretakers’ various quirks and dramas. While Balthazar the donkey was that film’s main character, he was simply an observer to witness human action, and as a vessel for Bresson’s statement about humanity. So why would director and co-writer (along with Ewa Piaskowska) Jerzy Skolimowski attempt to remake a classic, beloved film?
EO undoubtedly treats its titular hero as the main character of the film, with only one human character returning. It tries less to remake Bresson’s film; in fact, the main similarity between them is that they’re both centered around donkeys. But whereas Balthazar ruminated on the human condition, EO feels slighter in its purpose. That’s not to say that Skolimowski removes emotion altogether from his film. The filmmaking puts the audience first and foremost in the titular donkey’s perspective as he makes his way throughout the world. If there is a thesis statement that Skolimowski puts forth in the film, it’s in our relationship to nature and the creatures that inhabit the earth, which he posits in a subtle and smart way.
The film begins with EO as part of a circus under the care of Kasandra (Sandra Drzymalksa), perhaps the only person throughout the film who acknowledges him as more than a tool to be used. But once the circus closes down because of new animal rights laws, EO begins a journey from one establishment to the next, with varying degrees of affection expressed towards him. It’s to Skolimowski and cinematographer Michał Dymek’s credit that any narrative at all can be conveyed throughout EO’s runtime with such a sparse amount of dialogue, not to mention the level of empathy the film creates for its protagonist.
Dymek’s cinematography is truly one of the year’s best, creating dynamic images that convey layers of ideas. Indeed, EO is a film where your reaction to it will mostly depend on what you bring to it. If all you see is the close-up image of the eye of a donkey, that’s likely all you’ll absorb in the story. But if, in that eye, you see a soul that wants to be understood on the level of its human compatriots, you’ll leave much more fulfilled. Consider the sporadic vignettes, which Dymek tints blood red, wherein the film almost becomes a kind of post-apocalyptic fable, especially in one sequence where a robotic dog creation walks around and eventually falls over, only to pick itself up. Yes, the images are curious at first, but Skolimowski implies that, no matter where EO ends up, nature will continue to live on with or without us.
There are segments that feel out of place, like a third act scene between a wealthy woman only credited as The Countess, played by Isabelle Huppert. EO barely makes an appearance throughout these moments and, as well acted as they are, they don’t especially contribute to Skolimowski’s overall thesis. That it comes at the emotional crux of the film doesn’t help much either, but the film finds its footing by the end nevertheless.
For all its flaws though, there’s no denying the heart that Skolimowski – who is now at the youthful age of 84 – imbues EO. Any emotions that come from the film arrive naturally, and aren’t forced by laying on the sentimentality. The film is told from a straightforward perspective, denying the audience from seeing EO as a kind of cutesy animal plucked out of a Disney flick. It doesn’t posit that EO is morally superior to the humans he encounters; rather, it simply observes how the two interact. Story structure doesn’t get more basic than “man versus nature” – though to give that moniker to EO implies some malice that’s mostly absent from the film. It’s a quiet film that can be boiled down at its core, but told simply and profoundly.
EO is currently playing in select theaters and will be released in theaters nationwide on December 23.
- EO is Poland’s selection for Best International Feature. Expect it to receive a nomination, especially with its success with critics groups and some precursors